2021 & 2022 iSEE Seed-Funded Research Projects

Supporting interdisciplinary research and collaboration 

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iSEE Work



iSEE Work



iSEE Work



iSEE Work


Since its first year in 2013-14, iSEE has seed-funded interdisciplinary research projects on topics related to sustainability, energy, and environment to promote new research collaborations or enhance existing collaborations among faculty across campus that will improve their potential for attracting external support.

The goal of this funding is to enable faculty to develop exploratory research ideas that involve multiple disciplines and departments in any of the five thematic areas of interest


to iSEE (Climate Solutions, Energy Transitions, Secure & Sustainable Agriculture; Sustainable Infrastructure, and Water & Land Stewardship); collect preliminary data or other information to develop a research project; and prepare and submit research proposals for external funding. 

Read the news release about the 2022 selections >>>

Read the 2021 news release >>>


2022 Seed-Funded Project

A Next-Generation Model for Urban Sustainability Science

Occupying just 3% of the Earth’s land surface, urban areas house more than half of the world’s population — and contribute about 75% of carbon emissions from energy use. Many climate-driven threats such as heat stress, water scarcity, and energy insecurity are either rooted in or exacerbated by urban environments. Rapid urban development, coupled with climate change, will only increase these risks.

Click here to learn more

Researchers, policymakers, and industries recognize the urgent need to develop a new convergent urban science to chart pathways to more sustainable urban environments. To build this science, a critical hurdle must be overcome: representation of complex urban forms and urban-scale processes in large-scale Earth system models (ESMs).

This project strives to develop a novel urban modeling framework that combines both process-based modeling and cutting-edge, physics-informed deep learning networks, using recent advances in urban climate theories, data, modeling, and high-performance computing.

The urban population is expected to nearly double in three decades, whereas half of the urban infrastructure that we will need in 2050 has not yet been built. This massive urbanization exposes cities to substantial risks but also presents a historic opportunity to mitigate the negative impacts of climate change and to advance global sustainability growth.

February 2024 Update

  • Read our research feature on the team’s use of process-based climate modeling and machine learning/artificial intelligence to produce a real simulation of climate dynamics in urban landscapes.

September 2023 Update

  • Project PI Lei Zhao recently earned two prestigious awards:

    • The American Geophysical Union’s Global Environmental Change Early Career Award, announced Sept. 13. He will be recognized at AGU23 on Dec. 11-15.
    • And the International Association for Urban Climate’s Timothy Oke Award for Original Research in the Field of Urban Climatology, announced during the International Conference on Urbana Climate Aug. 28-Sept. 1 in Sydney, Australia.

Spring 2023 Updates

The Project Leaders

  • Lei Zhao, Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering

  • Jinhui Yan, Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering

  • Francina Dominguez, Associate Professor of Climate, Meteorology & Atmospheric Sciences

2021 Seed-Funded Projects



RURAL: Resilient Urban-Rural Analysis for Livability

This project seeks to answer a critical question facing the American Midwest: “Can sustainability be rural?” As populations migrate from populous cities to small communities, it is critical to ensure that these “urban-rural” communities maintain resilience and livability for all residents.

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However, increasingly severe weather (e.g., the devastating and costly 2020 derecho event) and racialized social inequities create barriers against inclusive, sustainable development.

Using a system of midsized communities like Champaign-Urbana, Peoria, and Aurora as a testbed, the research team will investigate the many interlocking systems that comprise the urban-rural network, with a specific focus on the following subsystems: food (security and agricultural land management); water (infrastructure and flood/drought mitigation); energy (generation and use); and people (movement between cities, “white flight,” and segregation).

Systems of midsized cities and their rural surroundings differ from large metropolitan environments in that they dually rely on agriculture and infrastructure; however, these synergistic systems are under-studied. Data generated from this research will create a new wealth of knowledge to inform best practices for land management, ecological biodiversity, government, and environmental justice.


The Project Team (updated Summer 2021)

  • Amy Ando, Professor of Agricultural & Consumer Economics
  • Julie Cidell, Professor of Geography & Geographic Information Science 
  • Shaowen Wang, Professor of Geography & Geographic Information Science
  • Andrew Greenlee, Associate Professor of Urban & Regional Planning
  • James O’Dwyer, Associate Professor of Plant Biology
  • Ryan Sriver, Associate Professor of Climate, Meteorology & Atmospheric Sciences
  • Ashlynn Stillwell, Associate Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering
  • Deanna Hence, Assistant Professor of Climate, Meteorology & Atmospheric Sciences
  • Liang Chen, Research Scientist in Climatology, Illinois State Water Survey
  • Brenda Molano-Flores, Plant Ecologist, Illinois Natural History Survey
  • Ashish George, Postdoc
  • Jose Acosta-Cordova, Graduate Student, Geography & Geographic Information Science
  • Allisa Hastie, Graduate Student, Civil & Environmental Engineering
  • Emma Walters, Graduate Student, Urban & Regional Planning
  • Kaylee Wells, Graduate Student, Agricultural & Consumer Economics

Integrated Electrochemical Separation Technologies for Nutrient Recovery and Valorization

While agricultural fertilizers can optimize food crop production in the U.S., excess nitrogen runoff from these products threatens the health of the country’s freshwater systems. In Midwestern watersheds (e.g., the Illinois River Basin), elevated chemical concentrations lead to pollution and dangerous algal blooms. 

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But removing nitrogen from waterways — from the Chicago River to the Mississippi — poses extreme scientific and environmental challenges. To remedy this growing concern, a U of I research team is fashioning an environmentally sustainable system to not only capture excess nitrogen from contaminated water, but also upcycle that nitrogen for reuse in products like ammonia (which is itself an agricultural fertilizer).

To develop a fully renewable-energy-based process to recover and use nitrogen, the team will take a three-pronged approach. First, they’ll use a sophisticated, electrically powered nitrogen-selective separation process to remove the chemical from polluted water. Next, the nitrate will be upcycled into ammonia. (While current methods for ammonia production are energy-intensive and contribute 3% of global carbon emissions, this team’s method will use renewable electricity.)

The final step in this process is a techno-economic and life cycle analysis, to ensure the value and holistic sustainability of the nitrogen removal and ammonia production process as a whole. Ultimately, this combination of nitrogen recovery and use will promote sustainable land stewardship, strengthen community resilience to nitrogen runoff, and encourage energy-efficient nutrient recycling on a larger scale.


The Project Team

  • Xiao Su, Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering
  • R. Mohan Sankaran, Donald Biggar Willett Professor of Nuclear, Plasma & Radiological Engineering
  • Prashant K. Jain, Professor of Chemistry and Alumni Scholar
  • Xinlei Wang, Professor of Agricultural and Biological Engineering



A team led by Su recently completed a study, published in Nature Communications, that demonstrates energy-efficient conversion of nitrate pollutants into ammonia. Read the U of I News Bureau news release >>>



In April, the team put in a $2 million proposal (“EFRI-DChem: Electrically-Powered Manufacturing of Value-Added Nitrogen Compounds;” lead PI: Sankaran; Co-PIs: Jain, Wang, Su, and one more) to the National Science Foundation’s Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation (EFRI) program. A decision is pending.

On July 3, Su and co-authors published “Redox-Mediated Electrochemical Desalination for Waste Valorization in Dairy Production” in Chemical Engineering Journal. Read the U of I News Bureau news release >>>

Program Background

Our  research requires interdisciplinary collaboration, bringing the brightest of the bright together to solve the world’s current and future problems. We call it “actionable research” — that is, scientific progress toward real-world solutions that can have an immediate and/or lasting impact on the world we live in.

Approved by the University of Illinois Board of Trustees in December 2013, iSEE made its first funding award in 2014 for three projects. In 2015, iSEE seed-funded four projects. It has helped facilitate large research grant proposals in ensuing years, acquiring funding for projects and centers on the Illinois campus. In 2018, iSEE began offering seed funding for its Campus as a Living Laboratory program. In 2019, the Institute supported its largest class of seed-funded projects with nine total, including four that are part of Campus as a Living Lab.

Check out the 2020 iSEE-funded interdisciplinary projects >>>

Check out the 2019 iSEE-funded interdisciplinary projects >>>